It starts with a reassuring presence.
“The great thing about horses is you can communicate with them without actually having to talk to them,” says Sterling Brown. At Long Pines Land and Livestock, Sterling starts most of the young stock, laying the groundwork for arena, ranch or anything else.
Until they are weanlings, most Long Pines foals are on the range with the broodmare band. During the winter months, after the fall work is done, Sterling starts spending more time with the youngsters, getting them used to people and adjusting to life without the mares. The more intense work starts with the 2-year-olds, getting them used to handling and tack, and giving to pressure – beginning with a simple rope around the neck.
“If they just want to run around and get used to the rope being on their neck, I let them,” says Sterling. He gradually increases tension on the rope, getting them used to that feel. Then, as they learn to trust him and he gets close, he rubs them all over and gets them to bend around both ways before removing the rope and calling it a day.
“It’s like that first conversation, first date, or anything, just gotta work into it and feel the animal out. See what they can take and what they can’t take,” says Sterling, emphasizing that each animal is different and the trainer needs to be responsive to their needs and attitude.
Once the colt is used to a halter, Sterling puts a rope around its girth, gradually tightening it to get the horse used to the pressure. He continues to rub its flanks and legs, letting it know he’s there. Then he uses a flag, moving it over their body.
“It’s like a leg swinging over them, or a saddle blanket tossed over them,” says Sterling. “They get used to things being thrown over them and tightened around them.”
Sterling says he has had trouble with colts accepting the saddle pad, and has learned it is sometimes easier to go straight to the saddle. “They’ll be alright, I promise. They’re not getting rode hard enough to get sore.” Once they’ve had a few rides, Sterling kicks them out onto pasture “to be horses again for a year.”
They will return in the winter and expected to make significant progress. By the time they are 3-year-olds, they are ready for basic ranch work and dragging calves at brandings. The next spring, they are the go-tos for calving season.
Sterling believes the foundation of a good arena horse is spending time as a working ranch horse, and Long Pines horses are workers.
“We don’t own a 4-wheeler, so everything’s done with a horse,” says Sterling. “Between branding, and shipping and sorting and moving bulls out and moving cows around the ranch, everything’s done on horseback. So our horses have to have heart and grit, be able to get you where you need to go, and then get home at the end of the day, too.”
Sterling credits common sense breeding of animals that are willing to watch and learn, and sometimes calming their adventurous spirit.
“These horses, they’re athletic. They’re cow horses,” says Sterling. And, unlike some places, Long Pines believes in running them on the range when they are youngsters, letting them learn and mature from Mother Nature. “They’ve got a lot of heart and try. It takes time and trust to get them to rope off and hold a calf for you while you do everything. That just doesn’t happen over night. It really comes down to just putting miles on your horse and putting time in them. That’s how you get a good one. You gotta use them.”
Ultimately, starting the colt out right is about earning trust.
“You do your best to keep them out of a bad situation and they are young minds, so sometimes they’ll get in a bad situation, so you do your best to help them out of it. That shows you’re not there to hurt them,” says Sterling. “They realize that you’re trying to show them something. And these horse have good minds, they figure it out really quick.”
For Sterling, it all pays off when he and the horse take to the range.
“When you’re on the horse, you’re not controlling a vehicle. If that horse wanted to, he could break in two and buck. But you’ve earned his trust now, and he’s willing to work for you, and put in the hard time and miles. When you’re out there alone, and there’s nothing but the wildlife and the animals you brought with you, and the animals you’re taking care of, that’s just about as close to freedom as I’ve ever been able to get, I guess.”